Charlotte Pence's "Architecture of the Veil"

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Córdoba, Spain. In the 10th century, Córdoba was the heart of the Islamic world. In its center stood an enormous mosque, called the Great Mosque or La Mezquita, in Spanish. After the Reconquista in 1236, La Mezquita became the property of the Catholic Church, which created chapels along the edges of the building’s interior, replaced the mosque’s minaret with a bell tower, and installed an elaborate Renaissance cathedral dripping with gilded ornamentation in the very center of the mosque. Charles the Fifth, Spain’s king at the time, declared when he saw it, “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

King Charles was right in a sense—the central cathedral is weirdly incongruous next to the elegant simplicity of the rest of the interior. But luckily, much of the original Islamic décor remains intact. And it’s a good thing, too, because it’s beautiful. Stone arches striped thickly with red repeat from one end of the vast interior to the other. If you stand at one corner and look toward the other, you can see the arches echoing each other again and again into the distance, in homage to eternity.

I was reminded of those echoing arches when I read the epigraph to Charlotte Pence’s poem, “Architecture of the Veil,” from her book Many Small Fires, published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015. Here’s the epigraph:

Islamic architecture often adorns the interior spaces as opposed to the exterior spaces. Commonly known as the architecture of the veil, this style alludes to the nature of the infinite.
– R.E. Souser

Charlotte Pence echoes eternity in this poem as well, in the way she depicts the melee of life in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the way the poem’s speaker seems to wonder and even yearn for access to the holy mystery each of us carries within. Charlotte Pence lives in Charleston, Illinois, and teaches at Eastern Illinois University. Here's her poem, “Architecture of the Veil.”

Leaning over the low wall around our hotel roof, we are fooled
into thinking Jakarta below might be understood by echo,
by prayer calls, car horns, hot spoons scraping woks of nasi goreng.
Or by gazing down on pishtaqs, minarets, cannons fashioned
into fountains.  All afternoon, the faithful go on being faithful.
The faithless, faithless. Each chasing piety with sugar and sticks.
Green-flanked smog shifts directions, sweeps the clouds
into crumbs, into evening, into this thing called the infinite.
The architecture here secludes its beauty to inner spaces,
to what cannot be seen from the street where a costumed
macaque flees under a soup stall, his frustration blooming
into soapsuds rushing the gutter. A walker passes by adding
a spoonful of blood to her thickening placenta; a beggar
irritates his toothache into stone. And the mosaics repeat
and spin their cobalt patterns until the moon quivers one day
forward—and no one notices except that two mangoes rot
while green on the tree. All the while, the prophets’ daughters
strut by in their highest heels, poking the sun back
into the pieces it really is. This brokenness, we suspect,
is true about our own selves, despite the fluid strides we make
from city block to city block. We walk among sweet sulfur,
wondering what we cannot see, wondering which feast or fast
is behind which house’s wall. In each of us, a stray dog forgets
to ask for home; a pack of roving hounds guards the door.